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Dog Soldiers

Dog Soldiers


A group of soldiers dispatched to the Scottish Highlands on special training maneuvers face their biggest fears after they run into Captain Ryan – the only survivor of a Special Ops team that was literally torn to pieces. Ryan refuses to disclose his mission, even though whoever attacked his men might be hungry for seconds. Help arrives in the form of a local girl who shelters them in a deserted farmhouse deep in the forest…but, when they realize that they are surrounded by a pack of blood-lusting werewolves, it's apparent their nightmare has just begun! (From Scream Factory’s official synopsis)

Before he became the go-to director for epic action on television (including Game of Thrones, Black Sails, and Constantine) and before he created the best British horror movie of the last decade, The Descent, Neil Marshall made an outstanding feature directing debut with Dog Soldiers. This hyper-masculine, hyper-violent ode to the siege westerns of Howard Hawks, Walter Hill’s celebrations of masculinity (specifically Southern Comfort), the military vs. monsters horrors of John McTiernan’s Predator, and the rural cabin terrors of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead set the stage for a career in gory, budget-conscious action.

Every second of Dog Soldiers smells like it was made by a first-timer with something to prove. In his zeal, Marshall makes a number of rookie mistakes. He over-cuts expositional scenes, his cameras are swishing around so frequently that it can be nauseating, and many of the scares are telegraphed too early. But his real value as a filmmaker shown through due to the fact that he was able to make stale clichés exciting again with a fresh combination of elements (it’s hard to care that ideas are being recycled when they fly so quickly) and oodles of energy. The economical narrative extends to the tough-guy (and gal) parlance, which is expertly portrayed by a much better cast than most first-time filmmakers can claim. Dog Soldiers was also an early entry in the recent pantheon of referential horror movies that stemmed from the real-life hardships of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Marshall was likely stewing ideas well before the attack occurred, but the use of military as protagonists, gritty photography, and graphic violence (it’s a much gorier R-rating than would’ve been allowed in the ‘90s) all anticipated the likes of more influential (for better or worse) movies, like Marcus Nispel’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake and Eli Roth’s Hostel. Of course, Marshall himself was more interested in combat than terror as his career blossomed.

When Dog Soldiers was first released on US Blu-ray by First Look Studios, the results were middling. The 1.85:1 transfer was mushy, flat, and rife with compression noise. Scream Factory’s Blu-ray ran into rights issues and was held back for about a year. However, it was a blessing in disguise, because during this time they were able to find ‘better’ film ( not negative) elements with help from Marshall himself. This new 1080p, 1.78:1 transfer is an improvement on some levels, but still might not be what fans expect. It’s important to acknowledge that Dog Soldiers was shot on Super 16mm film and that it will always be grainy. This release does a much better job preserving that grain as grain, rather than blotchy digital noise. Comparing detail levels and colour quality, however, is a bit more difficult, because the contrast is a lot harsher and the gamma is much brighter.

Apparently, Marshal was somewhat involved in the transfer (he at least ‘approved’ of the 35mm print they scanned) and has stated that he prefers the more acrid appearance (a friend that saw the film multiple times during its original UK release tells me that the theatrical version was pretty high contrast). But it’s also safe to say that the crushed blacks and super bright whites, both of which squeeze out a lot of subtle detail (especially in the blazing backgrounds and dark interiors), are problematic, as Marshal has personally acknowledged. A plus is that the edges are much better delineated than they were on the flat and washed out First Look disc. A minus is that it’s just so damn dark now. Compression effects aren’t too problematic, but I noticed a number of what I think are telecine machine effects that don’t show up in the screen caps. And, strangely enough, most of these have a tendency to strife horizontally. Image stablization is also a bit off, but the shaky camerawork usually negates this issue.

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack comes off better, though I don’t know if it’s any better than the First Look disc’s TrueHD track. The film’s modest budget does rear its head in terms of the depth of the sound design. Aside from a very convincing helicopter drop at the beginning of the movie, most of the mixing is either thin or produced in an artificial-sounding manner. The thin stuff features clear dialogue (it dips a bit too low when characters are whispering) and taut incidental cues (footsteps, guns cocking, shuffling clothing). The more produced sequences sound tinny, but do include a number of well-placed and very loud directional pieces. The heavy LFE presence (usually bullet fire and growling) helps thicken the whole track wherever action is concerned. Mark Thomas’ brilliantly heroic and brassy score sound great when it’s given full reign over the soundtrack, but is sadly lost beneath gunshots during the action scenes.

Extras include:
  • Commentary with writer/director Neil Marshall – This new commentary replaces a couple of group commentaries (one with the producers and one with Marshall and members of the cast & crew) that adorned previous DVD releases (I assume Scream Factory couldn’t secure the rights to those or they would’ve included them, too).
  • Werewolves vs. Soldiers: The Making of Dog Soldiers (1:02:00, HD) – A new retrospective documentary that traces the production, from influences, to financing, production/costume design, special effects/make-up effects, casting, and more. It includes interviews with Marshall, producers Christopher Figg and Keith Bell, special effects artist Bob Keen, special effects supervisor/creature designer Dave Bonneywell, production designer Simon Bowles, director of photography Sam McCurdy, and actors Kevin McKidd, Sean Pertwee, Darren Morfitt, Leslie Simpson and Emma Cleasby.
  • A Cottage in the Woods (13:30, HD) – A closer look at the model versions of the sets with Bowles.
  • Trailers
  • Combat (7:40, HD) – A short film Marshall made in the lead-up to his feature debut.
  • Still galleries


Besides the other commentary tracks, the only ‘important’ extras missing from Pathe’s UK DVD release are a series of deleted scenes and a blooper reel.

 Dog Soldiers
 Dog Soldiers
 Dog Soldiers
 Dog Soldiers
 Dog Soldiers


Scream Factory June Releases

Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers


Five years after the horrific slaughter at Camp Arawak, Angela (Pamela Springsteen) has created a new position for herself as a counselor at Camp Rolling Hills and she’s about to teach "bad campers" a brutal lesson in survival. (From Scream Factory’s original synopsis)

When Robert Hiltzik made Sleepaway Camp in 1983, he was trying to cash-in on the summer camp slasher formula that made Sean Cunningham’s original Friday the 13th so much money. But Hiltzik’s instincts proved too weird for standard slasher fare. Even without the benefit of any particularly gory sequences, Sleepaway Camp’s oddball sexual politics and awkward scares ushered it into status as a enduring cult classic. It was followed by two back-to-back sequels from director Michael A. Simpson in the ‘80s – Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers(1988) and Sleepaway Camp III: Teenage Wasteland (1989) – then an unofficial sequel, Sleepaway Camp IV: The Survivor, which was unfinished and abandoned for years, before turning up as an extra on Anchor Bay’s DVD collection. Finally, Hiltzik himself produced an officially ‘official’ sequel, Return to Sleepaway Camp. It wasn’t released until 2008.

Despite Hiltzik ignoring their ‘continuity’ when he finally had a chance to make his version, Simpson’s more comedic sequels garnered a following of their own. The first, Unhappy Campers, is somewhat famous in non-horror circles for featuring Bruce Springsteen’s sister Pamela, plus Emilo Estevez and Charlie Sheen’s sister Renee Estevez in starring roles. After quickly filling the audience in on the continuing adventures of Angela (including the fact that she had her sex change), Simpson introduces a pretty rigid structure where people offend her (she has become an impossibly corny prude that spouts slogans from anti-drug campaigns and forces other counselors to join her in sing-alongs) with deviant behavior and she murders them. He caulks the grout between these unconvincing, but entertaining slaughter scenes with as much nudity (the T&A is certainly eclectic) and dopey, Meatballs-esque comedy as possible. The stiff performances and rocky dialogue fit the nonsense tone of the original film (not to mention its homo/transphobic tendencies), which makes the down time surprisingly entertaining in spite of the jokes never being funny. Screenwriter Fritz Gordon’s fumbling attempts at understanding young ‘80s culture, specifically young women, is hilarious enough to overlook the botched gags. The spirit of the slasher satire endures as well, even if it isn’t particularly graceful (it’s difficult to resist the scene where two boys try to scare Angela dressed as Freddy Kruger and Jason Voorhees).

As mentioned above, Unhappy Campers made its ‘official’ stateside DVD premiere courtesy of Anchor Bay Studios as part of a Sleepaway Camp trilogy collection. There was also a non-anamorphic, budget release from Canadian company, Legacy Entertainment. Scream Factory’s 1080p. 1.85:1 Blu-ray is the first HD version available on home video. The image quality is about as sharp as expected from the material. Detail and texture are beyond SD capabilities, especially in the busier outdoor shots, but are limited by uneven grain, minor print damage (mostly white scratches), and some posterization effects. Darker interiors and night sequences also include some minor edge enhancement. Colours are natural and consistent, despite the grain and posterization/banding.

The original mono sound has been preserved in a 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. It is a thin and occasionally mushy affair, but it gets the job done. Dialogue is understandable and the music, including James Oliverio’s underused score and a handful of period-appropriate pop music pieces, has some depth. Effects are very weak, though, specifically incidental cues, and the noise-reduction during louder outdoor sequences is clumsy.

Extras include:
  • Commentary with director Michael Simpson and writer Fritz Gordon – The writer and director seem happy to oblige fans with their memories of production, but don’t seem to have a whole 80 minutes worth of information in them. Still, their honesty is quite charming and moderator John Klyza (from sleepawaycamp.com) does his best to keep the conversation moving.
  • A Tale Of Two Sequels: Part One (28:00, HD) – The first of two retrospective featurettes includes new cast and crew interviews and behind-the-scenes footage. Everyone involved seems to think they’ve made a better and more important movie than they actually have, but the content is still solid and the production values are higher than some other Scream Factory featurettes.
  • Abandoned (15:30, HD) – Fans of the series tour the eerily abandoned locations of both Sleepaway Camp sequels.
  • Behind-the-scenes footage (13:20, SD) including commentary with the director,
  • Home video promotional trailer
  • Whatever Happened to Molly? (1:00, HD) – A fan-made short that fills in a minor plot hole.
  • Still gallery


 Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers
 Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers
 Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers
 Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers
 Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers


Scream Factory June Releases

Sleepaway Camp III: Teenage Wasteland


Welcome to Camp New Horizons, where an autumn retreat brings together a group of obnoxious rich kids and surly city thugs for an "experiment in sharing." Under new inept management, this is the ideal setting for notorious psychopath Angela Baker (Pamela Springsteen again) to join the camp and do what she does best – eliminating "immoral" teenagers with everything from a knife to a lawnmower. (From Scream Factory’s official synopsis)

Simpson and Gordon’s second crack at the comedic slasher formula is stripped down to its essentials. For better and worse. On the better side, we get less character-driven nonsense and an even more consistent stream of dead bodies (the murders are conceptually more creative, though stifled by MPAA censorship). On the worse side, Simpson seems to be working from an even smaller budget and tighter time constraints. The editing is too loose (this and filler from the previous film makes me assume Simpson’s first cut was too short for release), the photography is uninspired, and every scene seems more like a rehearsal than a final take. Things start off on the right foot by re-introducing Angela as she runs down some punk street kid with a garbage truck, disposing of the body, and taking the girl’s place on the way to a different summer camp. It sets the stage to amplify the camp (no pun intended) appeal of the concept, but the filmmakers quickly fall into a rut of more of the same that can’t live up to this promise of absurdity. Gordon’s comedy also comes loaded with an uncomfortable mixed social message that spoofs white conservative culture of the era while also casting half of the badly-behaved characters as ethnic stereotypes.
 
Teenage Wasteland was included as part of the aforementioned trilogy set from Anchor Bay, then released by Legacy in Canada, and, once again, this 1080p, 1.85:1 disc from Scream Factory represents its Blu-ray debut. This disc is more of a mixed bag. Though the grain structure is smaller, it’s also more pervasive. The grain causes some discolouration in the otherwise more vibrant hues. Details are a bit flat and include another tinge of edge enhancement (along with similar minor compression effects), but the contrast levels are more dynamic than the Unhappy Campers transfer. The wider range helps separate elements, despite the less impressive textures. Print damage effects crop up from time to time, including some pretty invasive water damage near the center of the film.

The 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio mono soundtrack is an improvement over the Unhappy Campers disc. The dialogue isn’t muffled and sound effects have more depth. There are still some crackly bits and minor distortions at high volume levels, but fewer problems with noise-reduction effects. Oddly, some of the foley effects are off-sync, but the incidental effects and dialogue remain appropriately timed. It’s probably just a case of sloppy work on the part of the filmmakers. Oliverio’s electric score barely makes an appearance, but is warm and well-balanced.

Extras include:
  • Commentary with Simpson and Gordon – Another low energy track with the writer and director, once again moderated by Klyza. There’s plenty of good info and amusing anecdotes shuffled between awkward silences.
  • A Tale Of Two Sequels: Part Two (26:10, HD) – The second part of the new retrospective featurette. This time, the interviewees focus on the challenges of making the third film. The discussion of everything that was cut to avoid an X-rating is heart-breaking.
  • Behind-the-scenes footage (8:30, SD) including commentary by Simpson
  • Workprint of the longer cut taken from a VHS (1:24:50, SD) – The uncensored version is included for prosperity. The image quality is low, but not unwatchable.
  • Deleted scenes featuring additional gore footage (18:50, SD) – Those fans that don’t have the time to rewatch the entire film in VHS quality can watch a montage of the violence that was cut.
  • Home video promotional trailer
  • Tony Lives (1:10, HD)  – Another fan short
  • Still gallery


 Sleepaway Camp III: Teenage Wasteland
 Sleepaway Camp III: Teenage Wasteland
 Sleepaway Camp III: Teenage Wasteland
 Sleepaway Camp III: Teenage Wasteland
 Sleepaway Camp III: Teenage Wasteland



Scream Factory June Releases

Ghosthouse/Witchery Double Feature


So far, Scream Factory has been sticking to North American horror/sci-fi releases (or at least movies that were produced by primarily North American interests/filmmakers), leaving the vintage European re-releases to more established companies, like Blue Underground, Synapse, and Severin. Until now, the Italian cult film industry has only been represented by Giuliano Carnimeo’s obscure Mad Max rip-off, Exterminators of the Year 3000. Fortunately, for those of us inclined to love spaghetti-flavoured horror, Scream Factory is broadening their horizons with this double-feature release.

Ghosthouse


A group of visitors to a seemingly-deserted home find themselves tormented by demonic spirits – including one particularly freaky little girl and her creepy clown companion. Soon, our hapless heroes find themselves powerless to conquer the evil of the Ghosthouse – where death holds the mortgage and, if you move in… there'll be Hell to pay! (From Scream Factory’s official synopsis)

Since its inception, the Italian genre industry was dependent on ripping-off popular movies from other countries. As it dwindled into the 1980s, fads had shorter shelf lives and the categories began to overlap. Cannibal movies overlapped with zombie movies, zombie movies overlapped with ghost stories, gialli (violent thrillers) overlapped with poliziotteschi (Eurocrime), and rip-offs of Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist overlapped with rip-offs of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead. This odd, seemingly random pairing was most clearly represented with Umberto Lenzi’s Ghosthouse (1988). It was titled La Casa 3 to imply it was an official second sequel to Evil Dead (which was released as La Casa in the region) and included nods Poltergeist, like a clown doll and audio recordings of supernatural activities. References to the Amityville Horror sequels and gore sequences precisely inspired by Lucio Fulci movies (specifically House by the Cemetery, which was shot in the same spooky house) were thrown in for good measure.

As I mentioned in my review of Cannibal Ferox, Lenzi (working under his ‘American’ pseudonym, Humphrey Humbert) was not a hack – he was just most well-known for his hackiest work. His career spanned several decades and genres, from comedy and adventure, to peplum (sword & sandal), post- Dirty Dozen war films ( ‘macaroni combat’), pre-Argento giallo, and poliziotteschi, but his name will always be tied his particularly offensive cannibal movies (a genre which he instigated when he made The Man From Deep River in 1972) and a handful of half-cocked, super trashy ‘80s horror movies. Of these, most fans prefer his actiony take on zombie fiction, Nightmare City (aka: City of the Walking Dead, 1980), but I will always prefer the more playful and entertaining Ghosthouse. In fact, regardless of its lack of originality, stiff performances, and general silliness, Ghosthouse might be my favourite of Lenzi’s straight horror movies. Even if the characters are sort of obnoxious and the story doesn’t make a lick of sense, it’s a charmingly bad movie with plenty of gore and imaginative special effects.

Possibly due to rights issues, Ghosthouse never had an official DVD release in the US (though it was included as part of a RiffTrax download) and foreign DVDs were full-frame affairs, making this Blu-ray double-feature kind of a big deal to the few of us that enjoy the film. The image quality is slightly better than Scream Factory’s Exterminators of the Year 3000 release, but has a similarly muddy, including mushy grain levels, flat colours, and disappointing texture. I would suspect that this was a pretty good upconversion, except that there are no available SD widescreen versions to work from. The more likely culprit is yet another weak telecine scan from Italy. And, in Ghosthouse’s favor, there are fewer compression effects and the palette isn’t stained yellow. Element separation is decent, revealing more overall detail than the cropped German DVD release I last saw, especially during the darker scenes. Black levels occasionally appear brownish, but are generally pretty deep. Lenzi and cinematographer Franco Delli Colli keep the palette relatively sedate throughout, only punching up the lighting for a few of the more surrealistic sequences, so the lack of vivid colours isn’t really a problem.

Scream Factory has included only the original English dub in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono, but it is important to note that, like almost every Italian genre movie in the era, Ghosthouse was mostly shot without sound and dubbed for international release. A surprising amount of this film seems to have included quite a bit of location recording of English-speaking actors. The soundtrack is very well-preserved, including a whole lot of aural depth and nice effects separation (imdb.com says that the film was mixed for Dolby, but it seems unlikely that there was a stereo mix). This is good considering the important role eerie sound design plays in the film – both stylistically and in terms of the narrative. There are minor issues with reverb/echo and these pertain mostly to the audio that seems to have been recorded on-set/location. Anytime ADR and spooky sound effects take precedence, the quality improves. Piero Montanari’s score (some of which rather blatantly rips off Claudio Simonetti’s Phenomenon music) also sounds sharp.

Do note that this is an uncut version, including all the gore that was at one time cut for an R-rating. The only extra is a trailer.

 Ghosthouse
 Ghosthouse
 Ghosthouse
 Ghosthouse
 Ghosthouse


Witchery


When a terrible storm leaves a motley assortment of people stranded on an island resort, they soon find they have more to worry about than not packing rain gear! A horrible witch unleashes her wrath on the unwanted visitors – and no one is safe from her unquenchable thirst for death! (From Scream Factory’s official synopsis)

Fabrizio Laurenti’s Witchery (released in Italy as La Casa 4 and followed closely by Claudio Fragasso’s Beyond Darkness as La Casa 5) belongs at the bottom of this double-bill. Its only claims to fame are a couple of performances from American B-stars-turned-cult-icons Linda Blair (who is wasted) and David Hasselhoff (who is actually pretty good). Otherwise, it is endemic of the most problematic Italian horror movies of the latter ‘80s - it’s slow moving, light on actual horror, and, above all, mostly boring. It’s not a complete wash, though – there are outstanding moments of anarchic, gory weirdness crammed between languid, endless scenes of boring characters arguing about sexual hang-ups, foolish real estate purchases, and how to escape the cursed island. The highlights revolve around the house ‘attacking’ the new residents and sucking them through a swirling red dimensional rift (?) where they witness nightmarish cult rituals. The best of these culminate in a scene where the bitter and greedy wife has her mouth bloodily sewn shut and is hanged, head first over the fireplace, where her family unknowningly burns her to death. It’s such a singular and outlandish sequence that it was featured on the original poster art. One must also grudgingly respect that Witchery, though inspired by a number of other haunted house movies (and Rosemary’s Baby), is an original story. The screenplay is credited to Hollywood/Disney veteran, Harry Spalding ( Curse of the Fly, Watcher in the Woods) and spaghetti schlock veteran Daniele Stroppa ( Killing Birds and House of Clocks), which probably explains its schizophrenic quality.

Laurenti (working under the pseudonym Martin Newlin) spent most of his career in television and it certainly shows in the Made-for-TV dramatics. One does have to admit that he gets better performances out of the mostly English-speaking cast, which leads me to a theory – Laurenti co-directed the film with producer Joe D’Amato (aka: Aristide Massaccesi). D’Amato’s mark is all over the special effects-driven sequences, as well as the stylish establishing shots. On the other hand, even D’Amato’s best movies (a relative term, I assure you) tend to feature stiff performances and it’s probable that Laurenti’s television experience put him in a better situation to deal with the English-speaking cast. This theory is fortified by the fact that D’Amato is credited as co-director of Laurenti’s next feature effort, Crawlers (aka: Contamination .7, 1993). By the way, Contamination is literally one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen. I highly recommend it!

Witchery was released on uncut, anamorphic DVD via Media Blasters’ sorta defunct horror label, Shriek Show, but this 1080p, 1.66:1 double-feature does represent its Blu-ray debut in any territory. This is another suspiciously flat and slightly muddy transfer, but it has a number of advantages over the Ghosthouse transfer. The colours are more vivid and eclectic, including natural neutral tones and a number of punchy highlights (usually reds). Grain is more natural, though the transfer also exhibits signs of telecine noise in a handful of shots where the grain doesn’t move. Textures are inconsistent, but most of the brighter images – especially the daylight exteriors – have pretty good front-to-back detail. Credit for the more effective visuals should probably extend beyond D’Amato to cinematographer Gianlorenzo Battaglia, who is best known for his neon-caked work in Lamberto Bava’s two Demons movies. His dynamic, smoke-laden photography looks great during the nightmarish inserts. Print damage artefacts are minimal, including some warped frames and jagged cuts, but compression artefacts are more prevalent, like annoying edge haloes.

Like Ghosthouse, a surprising amount of Witchery was recorded on location with incidental sound and actors speaking in English (there are some obviously dubbed actors tossed in for good measure). The more naturalistic mix is lively with only occasional drops in sound quality when Laurenti cuts to a different vantage point within the same conversation. Unlike Ghosthouse, Witchery isn’t too concerned with outrageous sound design. Most of the spookiness is represented by Carlo Maria Cordio and Randy Miller’s electronic score, which bears more than a passing resemblance to Charles Bernstein’s Nightmare on Elm Street cues (though not the main theme), as well as Simonetti’s work on Argento’s movies in the ‘80s.

Once again, the only extra is a trailer.

 Witchery
 Witchery
 Witchery
 Witchery
 Witchery

* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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